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How men in Latin America are unlearning machismo

In January, Freddy Contreras, the leader of a well-known Colombian taxi union, made headlines after he released a video mocking women Uber drivers, saying they should work as cleaners instead. In early 2019, the Colombian women’s soccer team publicized the fact that they had not had a match or a head coach for seven months, while the prized men’s team experienced no such slights. And after the country’s local elections last year, just 11.8% of mayors across Colombia were women.

The force driving each of these cases is machismo, an attitude ingrained in nearly every facet of Colombian society. It’s an exaggerated masculine pride that moves through public spaces and behind closed doors—almost constantly present in workplaces, on the street, and in popular culture. A survey by the European Union found that 70% of Colombians are “moderately machista.”

Machista attitudes have real consequences for women, said Kelly Mendez, an advocate for gender-based violence in Colombia. Sometimes their effects can be relatively innocuous, like laughing at a sexist joke. Other times, the consequences can be fatal; the concept of male dominance and control is so deeply ingrained in individuals and society that seemingly “harmless” actions can lead to physical and brutal violence.

In late November 2014, Mendez was stabbed in the chest by her ex-partner, who later brought her to a Bogota hospital saying she was attacked in a robbery. Mendez, then in her mid-20s, was left in a coma and fighting for her life. Her ex-partner was sentenced to eight years in prison, but he is now out on house arrest.

In Colombia and throughout Latin America, femicide and violence against women is chillingly common. Within the first three weeks of Colombia’s national quarantine due to Covid-19, calls to the government’s domestic violence hotline increased 142%.

In 2019, 571 women in Colombia were murdered in femicides. Despite a 2015 law meant to impose harsher punishments on men who have murdered women, just 13% of cases end in a conviction. In Mexico, 10 women are killed violently each day, the highest rate of femicide in Latin America. By the end of April this year, 163 Mexican women had been killed in femicides during quarantine.

Activists like Mendez are slowly trying to unravel sexism and machismo in their cultures. But in a society where toxic masculinity is so entrenched, can it be unlearned?

Organizations throughout Latin America say it can. Several are focused on re-educating men to de-program their internalized machismo. If they’re successful, those tactics could help counter machismo in other hyper-masculine societies around the world.

“What we don’t name, doesn’t exist”

The macho man is expected to be strong, cold, and tough. This is true for not only men in Latin America but in most places around the world, said Ricardo Ayllón, the co-founder of Gendes, a Mexico City-based civil society group that works with men to promote gender equality.

“They’ve taught us that as men in these cultures to not speak about…[being] afraid, that I’m sad, that I’m hurt,” said Ayllón. “We’ve seen that, oftentimes, hidden behind these emotions of anger and rage are other emotions that traditionally men don’t express.”

We’ve seen that, oftentimes, hidden behind these emotions of anger and rage are other emotions that traditionally men don’t express.

Because of that, he added, many men don’t see that the way they relate to women is actually aggressive: Individual behaviors that tend towards verbal, economic, psychological, or sexual violence can help normalize them across society.

In some situations, women might not identify behaviors as machista, either. And when it comes to reporting these behaviors that society has normalized, often called ‘micromachismos,’ women can be left second-guessing their feelings—or, worse, feel like they’re being unreasonable. This can cause real damage, including for women reporting illegal behavior like harassment in the workplace. According to a 2018 study by Bogota’s Universidad de los Andes, two in every five Colombians think women who report harassment at work are exaggerating.

“Micromachismos have this power of being apparently subtle,” said Juliana Ospitia Rozo, a psychologist at Colombian women’s rights group Sisma Mujer. “Because maybe it’s not an action… you can’t point it out or you can’t repel it.” If male colleagues do not value a woman’s opinion, for example, this can be difficult to identify; if a woman does approach her colleagues about it, they might deny it is even happening.

All this can affect a woman’s self-esteem, work performance, and mental health. “It’s about understanding that what’s happening is gender violence, it affects us, and that we have the right for it not to happen and that it be investigated,” said Ospitia Rozo.

Combatting this violence against women was part of the discussion on a Wednesday evening in February, when around 200 people gathered at a community center in downtown Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city. They were there to discuss feminism and reggaeton. It was hosted by Las Guamas, a four-person collective that organizes a monthly meet-up to talk about, and unlearn, machismo. It’s mostly intended for women to talk about how to navigate the machismo stacked against them. But everyone is invited to listen and ask questions; about one fifth of the people in attendance for that meeting were men.

The conversation shifted between sexist song lyrics and whether women feel safe when they’re out dancing. Women passed the microphone through the audience to describe how machismo culture has weighed on them. One woman described a high-profile university professor and journalist in Medellin who had been previously accused of sexual harassment. Another, a PhD student, talked about how a man stole the idea for her dissertation.

“Society is so machista and that’s something that’s not going to change from one day to the next. That’s why we think that with these small actions, at least we begin to talk about it,” said Carolina Hoyos Bolívar, a member of Las Guamas. “What we don’t name, doesn’t  exist.”

All over Latin America, women have decided that this is the time to end machismo’s reign and push for a more equal society. Feminist movements like Ni Una Menos and Chile’s protest song un violador en tu camino have swept across Latin American countries; the song, for example, has been performed in countries like Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, as well as in France, Spain, and at Harvey Weinstein’s trial in the US.

So what comes next? For many organizations, it’s getting men  to understand how their attitudes promote, and actions interpret, gender-based violence—and to take responsibility for them.

Unlearning Machismo

Traditional masculinity—its effects and how to change it—is already a broadly-discussed topic in the US; for example, the American Psychological Association has put out new guidelines on how to treat men and boys and address the issues they might face, such as higher rates of suicide, learning disabilities, or behavioral problems. There are also American groups, such as the ManKind Project, which encourage men to open up about their emotions.

The conversation has now arrived in Latin America, and the movement is gaining steam. In November 2019, the European Union in Colombia set up The National School for the Unlearning of Machismo (ENDEMA). The videos in the awareness campaign depict typical real-life situations, such as a man who refuses to watch a women’s soccer match or who passively expects a woman to clean up the kitchen.

The idea was simple: to get both men and women to think about how their seemingly harmless comments and attitudes could be machista. If they’re more aware of these attitudes, it will be easier for them to change their behavior, or to push others around them to do so.

“It’s a school that has the fundamental objective to provoke reflection,” said Patricia Llombart, the Ambassador of the European Union to Colombia. The campaign achieved its preliminary goal and received some traction on Colombian social media and in the national press. Now, the organizers want to share ENDEMA’s materials so that schools and governments—especially in smaller towns—can use them to teach students what machismo looks like and to illustrate its damaging effects.

“The reality is that we’re all very conditioned by these thought patterns and behaviors… we don’t even question them,” said Llombart.

Some organizations are taking a more-hands on approach. Gendes, the Mexico City-based civil society group, is working to change how men view and relate to their own masculinities. In a country where violence against women is on the rise, Gendes operates group therapy sessions four days per week for men who’ve been violent with their partners and want to learn how to express their emotions in a healthy way (these sessions have now moved online due to the pandemic). They’ve also set up an emergency line available 24/7 in Mexico for men to call should they feel like they are at risk of being violent at home during quarantine.

About 300 men every year attend Gendes’ Mexico City sessions, where they learn that the way they may relate to women—controlling their partner financially or yelling—could be considered violent. Men also learn how to identify when they are about to become violent using body signals.

Ayllón estimates that about 20% of men who attend a group session seek out Gendes on their own. These are typically men whose families have drifted away or who’ve already left as a result of their behavior, and who are desperate to get them back. The other 80% have been ordered to attend by a judge.

[We work] with men so that we stop exercising forms of violence… and foster situations of equality toward women.

The model used by Gendes—called CECEVIM, which in English stands for the Training Center to Eradicate Masculine Intrafamiliar Violence—was developed in San Francisco in 1993 by another of the group’s co-founders, clinical psychologist Antonio Ramírez Hernández. Gendes opened in 2003, and since then, groups have formed in Panama, Uruguay, and Chile, as well as in other cities around Mexico.

“[Many] think it’s not a problem to laugh at a woman [or] harass a woman—that’s the most normal, the most common,” said Ayllón, Gendes’ co-founder. “[We work] with men so that we stop exercising forms of violence… and foster situations of equality toward women.”

Jorge Alberto, a 30-year-old computer engineer whose full name we have not published to protect the identity of his ex-partner, started with Gendes in the fall of 2019. A week earlier, he’d screamed at his partner over the phone when she was late arriving somewhere. He hung up. A few hours later, he continued to yell at her at home face-to-face. She told him she felt threatened and afraid—and ended their relationship.

Jorge Alberto’s friend, a woman, recommended he get help at Gendes. Initially he went to try to recuperate his relationship with this partner, but learned at Gendes that he needed to respect her decision.

He said he tries to talk to men at work about Gendes and how men should take responsibility for how they treat women. But it’s been difficult. “If we’re in charge, why are you doing that?” he recalled people saying. He said it makes him ask himself how men can reach a place in which they treat women with more respect. But he knows that at least he’ll be able to help one person understand the effects of machismo: his eight-year-old son.

Mexico is in dire need of more men like Jorge Alberto. After a number of women were brutally murdered (and before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country), Mexicans protested en masse to demand the government take more action to protect women. Citizens took to the streets on March 8th for International Women’s Day, and on March 9th, women across the country went on strike from their homes and jobs to show how much worse the world would be without them.

“Every week, every day we see a new case. Her name is Ingrid [or] her name is Fatima—girls and women who are being murdered,” said Ayllón. “Facing these realities, we can’t sit there with our arms crossed.”

We can’t sit there with our arms crossed.

Especially now, with more women at risk in quarantine during the pandemic, it’s increasingly clear that, to combat machismo, governments, organizations, and individuals will have to work together.

For Mendez, the activist in Bogota, it can feel like not a lot has changed. “I still have many things to heal internally; not just about forgiving the person that caused me this pain, but about forgiving such an indolent society,” she said.

Still, Mendez works with women to let them know it can be possible to move forward. “I managed to get my aggressor far away from me. I didn’t let him let him do what he wanted. And now I’m a survivor,” she said.

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